Canticles: songs of the church | Part 2: Phos Hilaron (O Joyful Light)


Others have gone this way before us. The mission of the church has been shaped over two millennia. The Christ story has been practised, nurtured, pondered and shared by a huge variety of people in different contexts.

One wonderful depository of this experience lies in the collection of songs we know as canticles that emerged from some of the earliest songs of the church. These songs have been sung in times of plenty and in times of need, in times of joy and in times of persecution. Grounded in Scripture and shaped by experience, they offer gifts to us now as we seek to live and share the Jesus Way.

While necessarily reshaped for time and context, their song of faith, hope and love remains the same. What might happen if we begin to speak or sing these canticles again? How might we be changed if we allow them to seep into us?

Phos Hilaron is thought to be one of the earliest Christian hymns, and remains in use today in churches of East and West.

O joyful light,
from the pure glory of the eternal heavenly Father,
O holy, blessed Jesus Christ.

As we come to the setting of the sun
and see the evening light,
we give thanks and praise to the Father
and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit of God.

Worthy are you at all times
to be sung with holy voices,
O Son of God, O giver of life,
and to be glorified through all creation.*


As with the first canticle in this series, Saviour of the world, the focus is on Jesus the Christ. Phos Hilaron is addressed to him, the joyful light, and the holy, blessed Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the giver of life. So we are reminded through the canticle that he is the one who will sustain us in life and mission.

It is in his joy, in his light, in his holiness and in his blessedness that we can face the challenges of our times and our contexts. It is his life that we are called to live.

If the canticle is focused on Jesus, it is also deeply Trinitarian, emphasising that the source of our hope lies deep within the life of this God. The joyful light that is Jesus emerges from the pure glory of the eternal heavenly Father. With Christ we too are held in time and beyond time, on earth and in heaven.

And so we are encouraged by this ancient song of the church to give thanks and praise to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit of God. And to do so at all times. This song seems to be a perpetual song, a song that will keep on sounding around us, beyond us and from within us.

This continuing song calls us to adopt a stance of praise and thanksgiving that shapes our day and night.

A question:

How might you nurture such a stance?

The canticle makes clear that in the light of the Christ we need to change. This song of praise and thanksgiving is to be sung with holy voices. Our orientation needs to be always towards Jesus, our lives characterised by growing holiness.

A question:

What might be the next step for you in your growing into holiness?

If this canticle is focused on the person of Christ and the wonder of the Holy Trinity, it is at the same time gloriously connected to the natural world.

The setting of the sun and the evening light are not just illustrations of the Light of the World. They are also means by which that Light is shared with us. Full of divine life, through them the God of their creation warms and enlightens us.

And in response we are called with them to glorify their creator.

A question

How might the physical light today open up God’s presence to you?


Give loving attention today to the light. See how it changes. Notice its effect. And you might like to take some photos exploring how the light gives life to whatever it falls upon.

You might also like to commit to learning the canticle, making it part of your daily prayer, returning to it whenever prompted. O joyful light…

*Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England © The Archbishops’ Council 2000 and published by Church House Publishing.

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